Although there are strong influences from China in the north and the Khmers and Chams to the south, Vietnamese art has developed an idiosyncratic style that is much admired around the world. The same is true of the county’s traditional music, which has led to the invention of unique instruments, and of its dance, which reflects concerns peculiar to each region of the country.
A country’s art always reflects its social climate, and that was particularly true of Vietnam during the 20th century, when for a long period all art had to reflect the glories of communism. There’s plenty of this ‘Soviet school’ of art on display in Hanoi’s museums, and tourist shops do a brisk trade in selling propaganda posters. However, since the late 1990s young Vietnamese have been branching out along any avenue that might bring them commercial success, and the influence of Western art is evident in many modern Vietnamese paintings.
The Vietnamese are a very musical people and particularly enjoy the tradition of quan ho or call-and-response singing, a form of courtship in which couples sing to each other without any musical accompaniment. Traditional Vietnamese music involves some unique instruments, such as the to rung – a large bamboo xylophone, the dan tranh – a 16-stringed zither, and the distinctive dan bau – a single-stringed instrument that makes a sound like a plaintive voice.
Like most Asian races, the Vietnamese love to do things together, so they are especially eager when it comes to a choreographed dance, and the synchronicity of the dancers is often breathtaking. Traditionally, dance in Vietnam was a form of court entertainment and was highly stylized, and while performances these days still bear some inherited traits, tourists are just as likely to see a dance that mimics everyday activities, such as planting rice or baking a cake.
As to where to go to see Vietnamese art, a good place to start is the Museum of Fine Art (66 Nguyen Thai Hoc), near the Temple of Literature. This place features not only paintings, but also sculptures, textiles and ceramics, and includes a big section dedicated to contemporary art. If you’re in the market for buying something, there are a couple of small commercial galleries here too, and there are plenty more scattered around town, particularly along Trang Tien.
All visitors to the Temple of Literature are treated to a short performance of traditional music, but for a fuller experience, it’s worth checking out the schedule at the Hanoi Opera House, where there are a few performances each week of traditional songs and drama, ballet, symphony orchestras and even jazz. Several upmarket restaurants in the city also feature traditional music ensembles in the evening for the benefit of their guests.